SEC: Austyn Carta-Samuels

Most important game: Vanderbilt

June, 23, 2014
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We're kicking off a new series today looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. We start in reverse alphabetical order with Vanderbilt.

Most important game: Sept. 6 vs. Ole Miss

Key players: The biggest change at Vanderbilt is at head coach where former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was brought in after James Franklin bolted for Penn State. With the departure of senior starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, the Commodores will also be breaking in a new signal-caller. Sophomore Patton Robinette started three games last season, including the BBVA Compass Bowl. Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers, transferred from LSU in the offseason and is immediately eligible to compete for the job. Vanderbilt junior running back Jerron Seymour made eight starts in 2013 and tied Zac Stacy's school record with 14 rushing touchdowns. The Commodores have a large hole to fill at receiver where they graduated Jordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leading receiver with 262 receptions. Mason has a lot of work to do with Vandy's defense, especially after losing Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall -- three of the team's top-four tacklers -- from the secondary. The strength of Mason's defense, as it moves from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base, will be the linebackers. Darreon Herring (84 tackles), Jake Sealand (45 tackles) return in the middle, while Kyle Woestmann (six sacks) and Caleb Azubike (four sacks) move from defensive end to outside linebacker.

Why it matters: The second game of the season won't have postseason implications for either team, but it means everything in terms of Mason's first impression in the SEC. Taking over for the best coach in a school's history isn't easy. After three bowl games in a row and back-to-back 9-4 seasons, the bar is now set high at Vanderbilt. Mason will be looking to prove he can continue Franklin's success without much of a transition. His players, meanwhile, should have even bigger chips on their shoulders. They want the SEC to know their recent run wasn't all about Franklin. They'll also be looking for some revenge against Ole Miss for a season-opening 39-35 loss last year. Vanderbilt-Ole Miss isn't one of the SEC's highest profile rivalries, but it is one of the oldest. This will be the second time in two years that these two teams meet in Nashville, Tennessee. The Commodores played host to the Rebels in a highly entertaining back-and-forth game last season. There were four lead changes, culminating with a 75-yard touchdown run by Mississippi RB Jeff Scott with just over a minute left in the game. The loss didn't dampen Vandy's enthusiasm much, though, as the Commodores went on to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. They'll need the same kind of mental resolve to make Mason's debut in 2014 a success.

Will SEC defenses improve in 2014?

February, 25, 2014
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With so much quarterback talent leaving the SEC after the 2013 season, it seems nearly impossible for the league's offenses to maintain their production from a year ago. There is simply too much to replace at the game's most important position to predict that SEC offenses won't experience at least a temporary efficiency gap.

Last fall featured a collection of some of the most productive SEC players who ever lined up under center -- led by 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, 2013 Heisman runner-up AJ McCarron and the league's all-time leading passer Aaron Murray. Throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Missouri's James Franklin and Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, and you have veterans who posted eye-popping numbers or who helped their teams ascend to rarely-seen heights in their respective programs' histories.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban and the Alabama defense will have their work cut out for them with the high-powered SEC offenses.
They're all gone now, leaving offensive coordinators at some of the league's most prominent programs to start over with new quarterbacks -- and in some cases, quarterbacks who haven't started a single game.

That has to help the league's defensive coaching staffs feel a bit more confident despite the thrashings their units absorbed over the last year or two, but I've got some bad news for them. Their problems are far from solved.

The last couple of seasons only continued a trend toward more explosive offense and away from the suffocating defense that was the SEC's trademark for many years. Just a few seasons ago, nearly every SEC defense ranked among the nation's top half in terms of yards allowed. That's no longer the case, as about half of the league's defenses trended toward the bottom in 2013 -- with Arkansas (76th), Missouri (81st), Tennessee (83rd), Auburn (86th), Kentucky (91st) and Texas A&M (109th) all ranking 75th or worse nationally in total defense.

Getting rid of some great quarterbacks will certainly help improve those numbers, but this is no longer the smashmouth, pound-the-run league that it once was. It's not as simple to defend what today's offenses throw at you as it was during the I-formation days of yore, and several SEC defenses have a long way to go before anyone would consider them competent at containing such attacks.

You have Gus Malzahn's ground-based spread at Auburn, which led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game and nearly carried the Tigers to a BCS crown. There's Missouri's version that featured one of the league's top rushing attacks and some dangerous (and huge) weapons at wideout. Kevin Sumlin's spread at Texas A&M obviously benefited from having Manziel as the triggerman, but the Aggies are still going to post big numbers even without Johnny Football.

And you've still got versatile offensive schemes such as those at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Georgia -- all of which will start senior quarterbacks -- that will almost certainly continue to produce on the ground and through the air. Wild cards LSU, Florida and Mississippi State also have the potential to be impressive on offense depending on how their quarterbacks and young skill players develop.

Add it all up and it still looks like 2014 will still be a promising year for SEC offenses, even if it might not match the production from a period that featured some of the league's best quarterback talent in at least a generation.

That said, the league will still have its share of defensive stalwarts, and that group might even grow a bit larger this fall.

Alabama's defense is always one of the best, and a talented Florida team should take a step forward after injuries crippled it a season ago. South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State all look to be impressive, while Georgia returns most of its starters and scored points in convincing Jeremy Pruitt to defect from Florida State to become its new defensive coordinator.

Those groups should be fine. If the league is to recover some of its defensive reputation, however, it will be a matter of the league's worst defenses suddenly getting their acts together -- and that will be a tall order since some of them were truly awful last season.

So to answer the original question, will SEC defenses improve this season? Sure, but don't expect a defensive renaissance to occur anytime soon. As long as the league features this many innovative offensive minds and explosive playmakers, the days where most SEC teams dominated the national defensive rankings are not coming back.

Season report card: Vanderbilt

February, 11, 2014
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Vanderbilt is the last of the 14 SEC teams to get its report card for the 2013 season, and once again, the Commodores received some high marks.

OFFENSE: C+

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Jordan Matthews was Vandy's offensive MVP after recording 112 catches for 1,477 yards and seven TDs in 2013.
For the second straight season, the Commodores averaged 30 or more points per game (30.1), although their running game dropped off to last in the league. Against SEC competition, Vanderbilt averaged just 115.4 yards per game on the ground. Give the Commodores credit, though, for taking a great player and riding him. Senior receiver Jordan Matthews made one key play after another, and Vanderbilt wasn't shy about feeding him the ball. Matthews concluded a record-breaking career by leading the SEC with 112 catches and 1,477 receiving yards. He was easily the most valuable player on offense, but senior left tackle Wesley Johnson at least deserves to be in the conversation. Senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels also showed a lot of courage by playing on a torn ACL in the last few regular-season games, and redshirt freshman Patton Robinette filled in capably in the couple games Carta-Samuels missed and in the bowl game after Carta-Samuels underwent surgery.

DEFENSE: B

There were some rough spots early, but Vanderbilt finished in the Top 25 nationally in total defense for the third straight season. The only other four SEC schools to do that were Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina. The Commodores gave up 35 or more points in all four of their SEC losses, including 50-plus to both Missouri and Texas A&M, but settled down and played their best football on defense down the stretch. The secondary was once again outstanding. Safety Kenny Ladler led the team with 91 tackles and also had five interceptions and five forced fumbles. Cornerback Andre Hal was one of the best cover guys in the league and led the SEC with 18 passes defended. Even though the Commodores weren't dominant on defense, they were opportunistic. Their 30 forced turnovers tied for second in the league, and they also finished in the top five in third-down defense. All in all, another solid job by Bob Shoop and his staff.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-

The Commodores' return units weren't especially prolific, ranking 11th in punt return average and 13th in kickoff returns in the SEC. On the bright side, the Commodores were fifth in the league in net punting (39.1 yards), and senior placekicker Carey Spear was his usual dependable self. He made 15 of 19 field-goal attempts and was never shy about sticking his head in there on kickoff coverage, either. Adam Butler had two blocked kicks.

OVERALL: B+

If you just looked at the Commodores' numbers this season, they weren't overly impressive. But it's a team that found ways to win, which is a credit to James Franklin and his staff, not to mention the leadership on the team. It's true that Vanderbilt didn't beat up on a lot of teams that finished the season with winning records. But to win nine games for the second consecutive year -- something that had never previously been done at Vanderbilt -- speaks for itself. The Commodores won at Florida, beat Georgia and also went to Knoxville and won, their second straight win over the Vols. Losing Franklin to Penn State was a downer, for sure. He took the Commodores to unprecedented heights and brought a much-needed edge to the program. Given his success, it was inevitable that he was going to bolt for a bigger job, and he did when the Nittany Lions came calling. Nonetheless, he engineered the kind of run that we might not see for a long time again at Vanderbilt, which had enjoyed just one winning season in the 28 years prior to Franklin arriving on campus.

BBVA Compass Bowl preview

January, 4, 2014
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Vanderbilt is looking to win back-to-back bowl games for the first time, while Houston wants to show that its high-powered offense can send another SEC defense reeling in the postseason.

The Commodores (8-4) and Cougars (8-4) meet in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Here's a quick preview:

Who to watch: Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews. The SEC's all-time leader in receptions and yards steps back into his home state to take on a pass defense that is allowing 276 passing yards per game (ranked 116th in the nation). Matthews was one of the SEC's best receivers this season, catching a league-high 107 passes for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns. He's averaging almost nine catches and 111.2 yards per game.

Matthews had eight 100-yard receiving games this season and has caught double-digit receptions in three consecutive games. But it will be interesting to see if he sniffs the end zone -- Houston has given up just 12 touchdown passes and has 23 interceptions.

What to watch: Both secondaries. Houston has given up a lot of yards through the air, but one thing that could work in the Cougars' favor is the fact that Vanderbilt starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels is out (knee surgery). That means backup Patton Robinette will have to lead this offense. Robinette has passed for 488 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions this season. If the Cougars can harass him and keep Matthews in check, Vandy will have a long day.

On the other side, Vandy's secondary has been solid all season, allowing just 204 passing yards a game. Leaders Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler had solid seasons, defending 21 passes and snagging seven interceptions. Houston freshman quarterback John O'Korn has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns, while receiver Deontay Greenberry has 76 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Why to watch: The Commodores have been a feel-good story since James Franklin took over as coach three years ago, and this is the last time we'll see Matthews play in a Vandy uniform. He's had a truly special career with the Commodores, and it was only elevated with the arrival of Franklin. Plus, the Commodores have a chip on their shoulders after getting passed by Mississippi State in the bowl pecking order.

With Houston, it's a chance to see a team possibly on the rise behind a pretty fun offense that could give the Commodores fits. Behind a young quarterback and young playmakers such as Greenberry and running back Ryan Jackson, the future could be very bright for the Cougars.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 23, Houston 21. Two fun offenses take the field in Birmingham, but Vandy will be without its starting quarterback. This is a big stage for Robinette, but having Matthews next to him to make plays should take the pressure off him.

SEC lunchtime links

December, 26, 2013
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Hope you all had a Merry Christmas and some quality time with family and friends during the holiday. To get you back into the football mood, let's take a look at some of the headlines from around the league:
Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels will miss the BBVA Compass Bowl against Houston after having surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee.

But here's the kicker: He tore his ACL way back on Oct. 19, when the Commodores upset Georgia 31-27.

Instead of packing it in and undergoing surgery shortly after Vandy's win, Carta-Samuels "made the ultimate commitment to his team," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said, by deciding to play when he could. Carta-Samuels sat out Vandy's loss at Texas A&M and the Commodores' win in Gainesville over Florida, but he returned to start Vandy's final three games of the season -- all wins.

Equipped with a knee brace, Carta-Samuels threw for 596 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in Vandy's final three games. He also ran for 28 yards in a 23-21 win over Wake Forest in the season finale.

Carta-Samuels clearly played through pain during the last three games of the season, but he told reporters that he couldn't do any more damage to his knee. Doctors also cleared him to play with a knee brace. Still, it was a pretty gutsy decision by Carta-Samuels to push through and play -- and actually be effective.

With Carta-Samuels out, Patton Robinette will start Vandy's bowl game Jan. 4. Robinette helped lead the Dores to that upset of Georgia after Carta-Samuels left and then threw for 216 yards in Vandy's 56-24 loss at Texas A&M. He then turned around to guide the Dores to their historic 34-17 win at Florida while throwing the ball just 12 times for 57 yards.

With Carta-Samuels graduating, Robinette will go into the spring with the upper hand in the quarterback competition. Getting these bowl prep reps and starting in a postseason game will certainly help him as he gets more and more comfortable with the offense and leading this team.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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We saw an overtime win by Mississippi State over Arkansas on Saturday, a last-minute win by Vanderbilt over Tennessee and a shocking win by FCS team Georgia Southern over traditional power Florida. In short, it was just another wacky Saturday in the SEC.

Here are five things we learned around the league:

Division races going down to the wire: Both the Eastern and Western Division races will go down to the final weekend. Missouri's 24-10 win over Ole Miss means the Tigers can clinch the East -- in its second season in the conference -- by beating Texas A&M Saturday in Columbia. If the Tigers lose, South Carolina will win the division by virtue of its head-to-head win against Mizzou. In the West, Saturday's Iron Bowl will settle the division when Alabama visits Auburn. Right now the unbeaten Crimson Tide have the edge, but the one-loss Tigers would win the tiebreaker if they can upset the Tide.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJohnny Manziel struggled against LSU on Saturday, just as he did against the Tigers last year.
Miles has Manziel's number: Johnny Manziel has run circles around almost everyone in his two seasons as Texas A&M's quarterback, but the defending Heisman Trophy winner hasn't fared well in two starts against LSU. In Saturday's 34-10 loss to the Tigers, Manziel finished 16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Les Miles' Tigers have limited Manziel to a 21.5 Total QBR in two games, and Saturday's loss was the first time he did not complete at least 50 percent of his passes.

Vandy's rabbit's foot still working: Vanderbilt backup quarterback Patton Robinette faked a jump pass to freeze a defender and ran for the game-winning touchdown against rival Tennessee with 16 seconds to play. This after Tennessee nearly stopped Commodores quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels on fourth-and-inches, only to have the initial call that he was stopped short overturned on replay. Vandy now has back-to-back wins over its in-state rival for the first time since a run of six consecutive wins over the Volunteers from 1920 to '26. The Commodores (7-4, 4-4 SEC) have won four of their last five games after sitting at 3-3 early in the season.

Murray's starting streak could end: Georgia laid a vicious 59-17 beating on Kentucky a week after a devastating loss at Auburn, but an injury to Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray put a damper on senior night. He injured his left knee in the second quarter and did not return, and coach Mark Richt said afterward that the SEC's all-time leading passer is unlikely to play Saturday against Georgia Tech. Murray has started every game of his college career so far -- he matched David Greene's school record for career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- but the Bulldogs might have to rely on backup Hutson Mason against the rival Yellow Jackets.

More mayhem for Florida: Will Muschamp's job status at Florida already seemed to be in jeopardy -- despite recent assurances to the contrary from his bosses -- even before Saturday's 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern. But the Gators fell to 4-7 with Saturday's defeat -- the program's first to a current FCS program since losing against Villanova in 1946 -- even though Georgia Southern didn't complete any of its three passes. The Eagles ran for 429 yards and held off a final Florida drive to pull the upset. That doesn't bode well for the embattled coaching staff. Florida will fail to play in a bowl game for the first time since 1990 -- Steve Spurrier's first season in Gainesville when the Gators were ineligible to go to a bowl because they were on probation.

SEC lunchtime links

November, 20, 2013
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Talking quarterbacks, BCS bowls, penalties, turnovers and even a punter in today's edition of the lunchtime links:

No wavering for Franklin, Commodores

November, 13, 2013
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Vanderbilt won nine games last season for the first time in nearly 100 years, won a bowl game for only the third time in school history and secured its first-ever final ranking in the top 25 polls.

It was truly a breakthrough season for a program that has been the SEC’s version of a tackling dummy for much of the league’s 80-year existence.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJames Franklin led Vandy to its first win over Florida in Gainesville since 1945.
But if we’ve learned anything about third-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, it’s that he’s not easily satisfied, nor is he easily discouraged.

As good a job as he did a year ago, he may have done an even better one this season, and that goes for his entire coaching staff.

The Commodores (5-4, 2-4 SEC) are one win away from locking up their third straight postseason appearance. They get Kentucky at home on Saturday and then travel to Tennessee on Nov. 23 and come back home to face Wake Forest on Nov. 30.

Suddenly, an eight- or even nine-win season isn’t out of the realm, which would have been difficult to envision back in September.

A rape investigation has hovered over the program since August when four players were charged with raping an unconscious woman in a campus dormitory and subsequently dismissed from the team. None of the four had ever played a down for the Commodores, but it’s the kind of nasty stain that doesn’t go away.

What’s more, a fifth player, junior receiver Chris Boyd, was dismissed from the team in September after pleading guilty to helping cover up the alleged rape. Boyd was one of the Commodores’ best players.

Rumors, innuendo and wild speculation have circulated throughout Nashville ever since, creating the kind of environment that could have easily torn apart a football team.

And when you throw in the bitter last-minute home loss to Ole Miss to open the season, not to mention blowout losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, it’s a wonder the Commodores didn’t crumble somewhere along the way.

But here they are, coming off their first win over Florida in Gainesville since 1945 and demonstrating the kind of in-your-face, iron-clad toughness that has defined this program under Franklin.

“The chemistry we have and the foundation we’ve built here is based on relationships,” said Franklin, who can’t and won’t talk specifically about the rape case.

“Let’s be honest. Sure, there has been stuff this year we’ve been dealing with. But when I got here, it couldn’t have been more negative. They’ve been dealing with that negativity and the outside perception here for a long time.

“But what we’ve done is persevere and stick to our plan throughout. The assistant coaches have taken that approach, and the players have taken that approach. I’m proud of their resiliency, and I’m proud of the fact that we’ve gotten better as the year has gone on. Each year, we’ve gotten better, and that’s a testament to the assistant coaches and the players.”

It’s also a testament to the guy in charge.

Franklin has scoffed at all of the things he was told couldn’t be done at Vanderbilt. That’s why he makes it a point to note whenever the Commodores mark off their latest first.

Their wins over Florida and Georgia this season were their first over the two traditional powers in the same season in school history. Franklin has now beaten everybody in the Eastern Division but South Carolina.

Even more impressively, Vanderbilt has won its last six games in the month of November, which is significant. In the past, the Commodores were so beaten down physically and so lacking in depth that it was all they could do to even make it to November.

In fact, in the decade prior to Franklin’s arrival, the Commodores were just 3-32 in November.

“Everybody talks about change, but change isn’t easy,” Franklin said. “That’s why I’m so proud of these kids and how hard they’ve worked. They’ve been willing to sacrifice things the common man doesn’t want to in order to get to where they want to go.”

While Franklin has been the rock that’s held it together for the Commodores this season, he’s leaned on a few people himself, notably Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams, Vanderbilt strength coach Dwight Galt, as well as Franklin’s wife, Fumi, and their two daughters, Shola and Addy.

“My girls come by the office every day, and I encourage the whole staff to do that,” Franklin said. “That’s one of the things that has been great, because they run around and say hi to all of their aunts and uncles here.”

Franklin’s wife and daughters were there to meet the team bus when it arrived back at campus last Saturday following the historic win at the Swamp.

“There’s no substitute for being able to come home to that support system every night,” he said.

In some ways, this has been one of the most challenging seasons of Franklin’s coaching career. In other ways, it’s been one of the most rewarding.

He remains deeply troubled by the rape charges that have rocked his program. Again, that’s not something that just goes away and has far-reaching ramifications over and above just football.

“This season’s not over. We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Franklin, whose team has also been plagued by injuries to starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels and starting linebacker Chase Garnham.

“We’ve had a wide range of emotions and experiences this year. But through it all, the guys haven’t wavered in their belief, and the assistant coaches have been awesome. The continuity on our staff has helped. Everybody understands how we handle situations, how we persevere and work through things because we’ve all been through it together.”


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Just like it has been all season, the attention going into Saturday was on Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Was he going to play, or would he sit? How was his shoulder? As he often has this year, Johnny provided a lot of drama.

But the real story from the Aggies' 56-24 win over Vanderbilt at Kyle Field was the performance of the A&M defense. A unit that came into the game ranked 118th in total defense, and was in the bottom 20 nationally in most major defensive statistical categories, put together what was easily one of its best performances of the season.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M turned Darian Claiborne and its pass rush loose, which resulted in seven sacks against Vanderbilt.
Sure, Vanderbilt was playing with a backup quarterback (freshman Patton Robinette made his first start in place of injured Austyn Carta-Samuels), but honestly, that mattered little. This is an A&M defense that struggles to stop virtually everybody. The Aggies allowed 306 rushing yards to Rice. They allowed 240 to FCS opponent Sam Houston State.

After taking a gut punch from Auburn last week to the tune of 45 points and 615 yards (379 rushing), any positive sign is acceptable at this point.

"We need an example to show us how we should play, and now we have an example," sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "We can always go back to the Vandy tape. This type of production we expect from the defense, and this is the standard that we expect from our defense. So, it was good to have a game like this."

There was an energy there that didn't seem to exist consistently in recent weeks for the Aggies' D. Howard Matthews (14 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) played probably his best game of the season. The pass rush was relentless, led by Gavin Stansbury's two sacks, and the 12 tackles for loss. The unit matched its season total for sacks with seven against the Commodores and held an opponent to under 100 yards rushing for just the second time this season. It finally looked like the unit defensive coordinator Mark Snyder envisioned he'd have coming into the season.

"I dialed it up," Snyder said of what generated the consistent pass rush. "We pressured a lot more than we have pressured because we finally could. We felt like we finally got to the point where all the pieces were in place. We had practiced together, and I felt comfortable calling some pressures because everybody knew where they were supposed to be."

Much of that came from a few noteworthy personnel moves. True freshman cornerback Noel Ellis got plenty of time in place of Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel cornerback. Junior linebacker Donnie Baggs, who hasn't started since Sept. 14 against Alabama, got the starting nod at strongside linebacker. True freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall didn't start but saw heavy playing time rotating with starting ends Stansbury and Obioha. Starting defensive tackle Alonzo Williams missed the game with a foot injury, and junior Ivan Robinson replaced him.

The Commodores' best weapon -- receiver Jordan Matthews -- had a solid day (eight catches, 92 yards), but his longest reception was 21 yards. The biggest play came from Jonathan Krause on a 44-yard reception in the first half. Matthews, to his credit, became the SEC's career receiving yards leader with 3,172.

If the Aggies can build on this performance, the outlook for the rest of the season is bright.

Although the defense showed well, most eyes were on Manziel in the early going. For a guy with an injured throwing shoulder, it sure didn't seem to affect him. He completed his first 10 passes and led the Aggies to four consecutive touchdown drives to start the game.

Coach Kevin Sumlin was tight-lipped about Manziel's status all week leading up to the game, calling the Heisman Trophy winner "hopeful." He never budged from that statement but said Saturday that he wasn't playing coy and that Manziel was truly a game-time decision as he tried to recover from the shoulder injury he suffered last week.

Manziel began throwing Wednesday and participated in 11-on-11 drills Friday and even woke up Saturday with soreness. But he said there was no keeping him off the field.

"In my mind, I was always going to play," Manziel said. "It would take a lot to keep me off the field and away from these guys. They count on me, and they expect me to be there."

He completed 25 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. He ran much less than he usually does because it wasn't in the game plan, mostly to protect him from further injury.

Although Manziel was able to make every throw necessary to put the Aggies' offense in the right position, he got plenty of support from the running game as the Aggies combined for 189 yards, led by Trey Williams' 65 and Brandon Williams' 61.

It was far from a clean win. The Aggies committed five turnovers and allowed the game to get closer than it had to in the first half. But it's something they can build off of as they approach the homestretch.

"It's been a little frustrating as of late with some games a little closer than we wanted," Manziel said. "We felt we've played pretty good all around, but we just need to continue to get better. That's the thing. We're not where we were last year in every aspect of our game, but we have a coaching staff that won't quit until we're where we need to be."

Vandy's Robinette to start vs. A&M

October, 24, 2013
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There was uncertainty entering the week about who the starting quarterback would be for both Vanderbilt and Texas A&M on Saturday, but one team named their starter on Thursday as the Commodores confirmed that Patton Robinette will start in place of Austyn Carta-Samuels.

Robinette replaced Carta-Samuels last week against Georgia after Carta-Samuels suffered a left leg injury. The redshirt freshman was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, ran for a touchdown and threw an interception in the 31-27 victory.

Robinette is 13-of-20 passing for 148 yards and an interception on the season. Carta-Samuels, who has started all seven games for Vanderbilt this season is 129-of-197 passing for 1,672 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions for the Commodores (4-3, 1-3 SEC).

"He's the perfect fit for what we're trying to do at Vanderbilt," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said Wednesday of Robinette. "When we make comments like, 'You better prepare as if you're the starter,' Patton does that. When he got his opportunity and his number was called, he stepped in and did a good job. Now that was a half of football. He needs to come out and build on the things he did last week and limit some of the mistakes that he made."

Texas A&M's starter is uncertain for the meeting with Vanderbilt at Kyle Field. Johnny Manziel, who suffered an injury to his right shoulder, is day-to-day, and coach Kevin Sumlin called his status "hopeful," for Saturday's game. If Manziel doesn't start, either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill will take his place.

Saturday will mark the first meeting in history between these teams.

(Read the full post)

SEC lunchtime links

October, 24, 2013
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It's game day! Sort of. While most of the league plays on Saturday, as usual, the SEC gets an early start this week with Kentucky and Mississippi State kicking off Thursday night on ESPN. So we'll start there with today's lunchtime links:

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping Johnny Manziel will be able to play against Vanderbilt.
2. Manziel: To play or not to play? If it seems that we've been down this road before, it's because we have. People want to know whether Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play Saturday. He suffered an apparent shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss to Auburn but returned to finish the final 9:06 of the game, playing with pain in that throwing shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't tipping his hand, simply calling Manziel "hopeful" for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.

4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.

6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.

7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.

8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.

9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.

10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.

SEC predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:00
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And just like that, Chris Low has caught up with me. It took him long enough, but he's finally back up here with the big boys.

Congrats. Maybe, he realized that he should put more time and effort into his picks rather than his dwindling golf game.

I have to respect his decisions lately. He has shown that he truly is a veteran when it comes to this stuff. He has bested me the past couple of weeks, and I've made some careless decisions.

Last week, we both went under the .500 mark, but Chris tied things up by correctly picking Missouri over Florida -- a pick I missed on. Really, SEC? You really had four major upsets in the same weekend? I mean, who saw that coming?

Chris went 2-4 pull even with me at 60-11 (.845), while I went 1-5. Not our best work, but things sure are interesting now. I can tell you that I won't be sleeping on Chris any longer. I admittedly laughed at a few of his picks this year, and it has come back to bite me.

But today is a new day. We're basically at 0-0 and I'm hungry for back-to-back championships.

Let's get to the picks:

Thursday

KENTUCKY at MISSISSIPPI STATE

Chris Low: Both of these teams are looking for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky has lost 13 in a row on the road in the SEC. It’s a game Mississippi State has to have if the Bulldogs are going to have any chance of making a fourth straight bowl appearance. The home crowd will be the difference. … Mississippi State 27, Kentucky 21

Edward Aschoff: Both of these teams need this victory. The Bulldogs are looking to stay on the bowl path, while the Wildcats need some sort of momentum to this season. Kentucky won't be a pushover, but the Bulldogs should take care of business at home. … Mississippi State 34, Kentucky 21

Saturday

FURMAN at LSU

Low: It’s one of those weeks in the SEC where there are more than a few mismatches. Here’s another one in Tiger Stadium. LSU won’t be in the best of moods after losing last week on the road and will take out some frustration on their FCS foes. … LSU 45, Furman 13

Aschoff: The Tigers have to be frustrated after that loss at Ole Miss. Well, what a way to take out that frustration than to devour a cupcake at home surrounded by the lights of Tiger Stadium. … LSU 51, Furman 10

IDAHO at OLE MISS

Low: Despite being ravaged with injuries, Ole Miss was able to gut out a key victory at home last week over LSU. The Rebels are still banged up and even added a few more players to the injury list, but it won’t matter this week. … Ole Miss 48, Idaho 7

Aschoff: You know the Rebels are flying sky high after their upset win over LSU. Now, Ole Miss gets to add to the win total with a visit from the 1-6 Vandals. … Ole Miss 48, Idaho 10

FLORIDA ATLANTIC at AUBURN

Low: Don’t look now, but Auburn is rolling right along with visions of contending in the Western Division this season. The Tigers get a breather out of conference this week and will rack up more than 40 points for the third straight game. … Auburn 41, Florida Atlantic 14

Aschoff: A week removed from their major upset of Texas A&M, the Tigers get a chance to get some more of those youngsters out on the field with Florida Atlantic welcoming this team back to the Plains. … Auburn 45, Florida Atlantic 17

VANDERBILT at TEXAS A&M

Low: Neither team is 100 percent at the quarterback position. The Aggies expect Johnny Manziel to play despite a painful shoulder injury, and it looks like backup Patton Robinette is the man for the Commodores after Austyn Carta-Samuels went down last week with a leg injury. If you like offense (and not a lot of defense), this is your game. The Aggies are just too explosive on offense to lose two in a row at home. … Texas A&M 42, Vanderbilt 30

Aschoff: Both of these teams are literally hurting at quarterback, but you know Johnny Football will try his hardest to make it back to the playing field. The Aggies certainly can't sleep on this Vanderbilt team, especially with that struggling defense, but with or without Manziel under center, A&M just has too much offensively to lose two straight. … Texas A&M 41, Vanderbilt 28

TENNESSEE at ALABAMA

Low: The last time Alabama was remotely pushed in a football game was six weeks ago when the Crimson Tide survived the 49-42 shootout against Texas A&M. Their October schedule has been about as cushy as it gets. They get an improving Tennessee team, but the Vols aren’t ready to go into Tuscaloosa and win. … Alabama 35, Tennessee 9

Aschoff: Alabama hasn't had to deal with much competition at all this month and has allowed just 10 points in the past four games. Tennessee is riding high off that upset of South Carolina, and will push the Tide … in the first half. The Crimson Tide will cruise through the second half of this game like it's cruised through the rest of the month. … Alabama 38, Tennessee 13

SOUTH CAROLINA at MISSOURI

Low: With Connor Shaw ailing, Steve Spurrier says backup quarterback Dylan Thompson will start this week for South Carolina. Missouri didn’t miss a beat last week with backup Maty Mauk filling in for James Franklin. The Tigers can take a commanding lead in the Eastern Division race with a win, but the Gamecocks will make enough plays on defense to keep things interesting in the East with their biggest win of the season. … South Carolina 31, Missouri 27

Aschoff: These Tigers have everything going for them and with a win on Saturday, they will essentially win the East. But now the pressure is on. South Carolina is hurting after a loss to Tennessee and is now dealing with Shaw's injury. The offense and defense are clicking for the Tigers, but they haven't met a team as balanced as South Carolina, and Mike Davis will be the difference. … South Carolina 31, Missouri 24

Hot and Not in the SEC: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
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The college football season is heating up as we head to the final week of October.

In some quarters, though, it’s starting to feel a little chilly.

Here’s our weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not in the SEC:

GLOWING EMBERS

[+] EnlargeAuburn
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsAuburn has plenty to be happy about after Saturday's upset victory over Texas A&M.
Momentum on the Plains: There’s been quite a buzz in the state of Alabama over one college football team in particular during the last few years. The last four BCS National Championship trophies currently reside there. Obviously, three of them belong to Alabama, which has won the last two. But Auburn won in 2010. Given the Crimson Tide’s incredible success under Nick Saban, the Tigers had sort of been a forgotten entity in the state over the last two years. But not anymore. First-year coach Gus Malzahn has Auburn rolling after a gritty 45-41 win at Texas A&M this past weekend and, more importantly, Malzahn has done something he promised to do when he got the job. He’s restored Auburn’s edge, and the Tigers (6-1 overall, 3-1 SEC) are playing with the kind of confidence, chemistry and purpose they did in 2010 when they won the national title. They debuted at No. 11 in the first BCS standings Sunday night and are probably too far down to climb into the national championship mix this season, but this is a team that’s improving each week and could very realistically get to 10 wins this season. Not only that, but Auburn gets Alabama at home to close the season. If the Tigers can take care of business against Arkansas and Tennessee on the road and then Georgia at home, the Iron Bowl would be for the Western Division championship and the right to go to Atlanta and play for the SEC title. After a miserable season a year ago, things are looking up on the Plains.

HOT

Bo Wallace on third down: Ole Miss’ junior quarterback was money on third down in the Rebels' 27-24 win over LSU. The Rebels were 11-of-18 on third down, and Wallace was responsible for nine of those conversions. He kept the winning drive alive with a 6-yard scramble on third-and-6 and came back a few plays later and connected with Ja-Mes Logan for 13 yards on third-and-9. Wallace was 7-for-8 for 140 yards on third down.

NOT

Quarterbacks’ health: At least nine of the 14 teams in the SEC this season have had injuries at the quarterback position, some more serious than others. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (shoulder), South Carolina’s Connor Shaw (knee) and Vanderbilt’s Austyn Carta-Samuels (left leg) were all injured last weekend. Manziel was able to return to the game but had to play through obvious pain. Shaw won’t need surgery but is iffy for South Carolina’s game at Missouri this Saturday, and Carta-Samuels could be lost for the season.

HOT

Marquez North's catch: In each of his last two games, the Tennessee freshman receiver has made fabulous catches. He had a toe-tapping 19-yard touchdown catch against Georgia on Oct. 5 and followed that up with the play of the game (and maybe the catch of the year) in Tennessee’s 23-21 win over South Carolina. On third-and-10, North pulled in a 39-yard heave from Justin Worley with his left hand as he was falling backward to keep the Vols’ game-winning drive alive.

NOT

Bret Bielema’s SEC welcome: Arkansas was hammered 52-0 at No. 1 Alabama last weekend, extending the Hogs’ losing streak to five straight games. In their last three games, they’ve been outscored 134-17. It’s the first time in Bielema’s head coaching career that he’s lost five in a row. Not that Bielema needed to be reminded, but he ain’t in the Big Ten anymore.

HOT

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam: Anybody pick Sam back in the preseason to be the SEC’s leader in sacks at this point? The Tigers’ fifth-year senior defensive end is playing lights out. He had three more sacks Saturday in the win over Florida and leads the league with nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He also had a fumble return for a touchdown two weeks ago in the win at Georgia.

NOT

South Carolina in the fourth quarter: The fourth quarter hasn’t been kind to the Gamecocks this season, and their late woes caught up to them in their 23-21 loss at Tennessee. They managed just 12 total yards in the fourth quarter against the Vols and seemed to forget that Mike Davis, the SEC’s leading rusher, was on the field.

FREEZER BURN

Texas A&M’s defense: Watching the Aggies play offense is about as entertaining as it gets. But boy, you have to feel for the Aggies’ fans when that defense trots out onto the field. They’re not just bad on defense, they’re woefully bad. And holding anybody under 30 points right now is a pipe dream. Most of the problem is up front and at the linebacker positions. The Aggies are 112th nationally (out of 123 teams) in rushing defense. They're giving up 226.6 yards per game on the ground and, even worse, 5.87 yards per carry. Only five teams in the country are giving up more yards per rush -- Eastern Michigan, UTEP, New Mexico, New Mexico State and Nevada. That's not the company you want to be keeping when it comes to stopping (or not stopping) people on the ground in the SEC. The Aggies are also 104th nationally in scoring defense and are giving up 33.9 points per game. They've allowed more than 30 points in five of their seven games, and one of those came against an Arkansas team that has scored a combined 17 points in its last three contests against Alabama, South Carolina and Florida.

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